Prairie dogs, a keystone species central to the health of living communities on the prairies, are native to western North America. They live in family groups within larger colonies or towns. In order to have a clear view of potential predators, they nibble on and destroy any shrubs that start to grow, thereby preventing the grassland from turning into shrubland. Their burrows provide shelter for species such as rabbits, burrowing owls, black-footed ferrets, snakes, mice and insects, all of which help hold in place the web of life on the grasslands. The prairie dogs themselves make up 90% of the diet of the endangered black-footed ferret. Animal behaviorist Con Slobodchikoff has found that prairie dogs "have the most sophisticated vocal language ever decoded, even better than chimps, dolphins and orcas." Not only can they distinguish between types of predators that are nearby -- dogs, coyotes, humans -- they also have warnings that specify the predators' size and color.
According to Dr Gerado Ceballos, a well-respected ecologist, in 1900 an estimated 5 billion prairie dogs lived in North America. A colony in Texas was estimated to be 100 miles by 250 miles with an estimated 400 million prairie dogs. But as the west was settled cattle ranchers, believing that prairie dogs competed with cattle for grazing land, began a campaign to exterminate them. Colonies were also wiped out when grasslands were converted to agriculture. Today, as cities and towns grow and spread, prairie dogs are routinely poisoned in mass, or simply buried alive, before buildings, roads, parking lots, and golf courses are built on top of their colonies. Even colonies on undeveloped parcels and dedicated open space are poisoned. Some people shoot them for "fun" in killing contests. The end result is that prairie dogs are gone from 98-99% of their former range. The colonies that remain are magnitudes smaller and highly fragmented. Yet the mass killing continues.